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Learner drivers overpay for tests and struggle to find teachers after lockdown

<span>Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA</span>
Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA

Desperate learner drivers are paying double the going rate for tests on the secondary market, while others are struggling to find an instructor, as the industry grapples with a huge backlog of pupils owing to Covid.

Nino Shankischvili, a London-based learner, told the Guardian she paid an instructor £530 for three tests because she was unable to get an appointment at her local test centre. A practical exam booked through the official Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) website costs just £62.

Tests and lessons were halted during the Covid lockdowns, a situation that meant an estimated 500,000 pupils had their courses disrupted or put off learning the skill. This had a big knock-on effect when restrictions ended as this cohort had to compete with a new crop of people old enough to drive.

The high demand means the average waiting time for a driving test is now nearly 15 weeks, although it is a lot longer in some places, including in cities such as London, Birmingham and Cardiff, where no tests are available to book for up to six months.

This squeeze has turned driving test slots into a commodity, with firms exploiting the area of the DVSA booking system aimed at driving schools to bulk book tests to resell, sometimes via instructors.

A recent BBC investigation found learners paying more than £200 for slots acquired this way.

Mark Oakley, the managing director of AA Driving School, said the lockdowns had “left a long shadow over the industry” with many learners and even trainee instructors unable to progress due to delays with their tests.

“For many learners, especially young people, getting their driving licence is a gateway to further education, employment and independence,” he said. “Sitting in a queue for months and months is dispiriting.”

For other learners the challenge is finding a teacher. Chiedza Chogugudza, a London-based research analyst, has been looking for one for more than a year and complains the cost of lessons has risen. The delay means she is worried her theory test certificate, which allows two years to pass the practical, could expire.

Some driving schools report being inundated with inquiries. Craig Preedy, an instructor at WyeDrive in Hereford, told the Guardian it had closed its waiting list because it could not guarantee a place would open up until 2023.

“Trainers are very much still in demand,” said Carly Brookfield, the Driving Instructors Association (DIA) chief executive. She said instructors were under “big pressure” to get pupils successfully through their tests due to the long waiting times.

“However, demand is starting to normalise with trainers seeing less demand than in 2021 when it clearly peaked just after lockdowns were eased.”

Lesson prices have gone up, Brookfield said, a situation that reflected rising business costs including insurance, fuel and car leases, as well as trainers trying to recoup income lost during the pandemic when they were not allowed to work.

Loveday Ryder, the DVSA chief executive, said the agency wasdoing all we can to provide learners with as many tests as possible”. It is recruiting 400 examiners, on top of the 240 who have joined in the past year, and is offering overtime, as well as giving retired staff the option to return.

It had also cracked down on the resellers exploiting learner drivers, she said. In recent weeks the DVSA has closed 5,000 accounts on its booking system not linked to driving instructors and improved security to block bots. It plans to change its terms and conditions to make it clear driving instructors are not allowed to profit from tests.

The agency is aiming to bring the test waiting time under 10 weeks by the end of the year. In the meantime it says a big increase in “no-shows” is making a bad situation worse. More than 6,000 tests are being wasted each month – double the pre-pandemic rate. With the pass rate below 50%, the DVSA is urging learners who are not ready to reschedule their test so it can be used by someone who is.